Anti-Intellectualism in American Life
a book by Richard Hofstadter
(our site's book review)
In this award-winning classic work of consensus history, Richard Hofstadter, author of The Age of Reform, examines the role of social movements in the perception of intellect in American life.
"As Mr. Hofstadter unfolds the fascinating story, it is no crude battle of eggheads and fatheads. It is a rich, complex, shifting picture of the life of the mind in a society dominated by the ideal of practical success."—Robert Peel in the Christian Science Monitor
Hofstadter identifies four main areas responsible for American anti-intellectualism: religion; politics; business; and elementary education. These areas are explored in detail.
The one area that Hofstadter had never seen evidence of anti-intellectualism, namely knowledge of the physical sciences, has now become a key battleground in American politics with the current doubt of climate change.
Global warming? G.O.P. anti-intellectualism says it's fake science; Dems say it will be the death of us
In early, dispersed America, learned preachers with their dry approach to religious services were less effective at filling churchs than charismatic laypeople. In response to the challenge, Protestant sects began to debate the value of formal education for religious leaders. Nothing highlights this conflict between the intelligentsia and fundamentalists more than the public controversies surrounding Darwinism and evolution, a true turning point for American society that persists to the present day. Then, as now, parents became concerned that formal science instruction would rob their children of their religious faith. America's very success was evidence that formal education was unnecessary.
Fundamentalist Bible thumpers have gotten Creationism inserted into curriculums and climate change speeches canceled—it's not enough to BE ignorant; they feel the need to SPREAD ignorance!
The concern that students are poorly educated and are not interested in education is long-standing as is the complaint that our educational system is poorly resourced and quite ineffective compared to other developed Western nations. (We are 14th in the world in cognitive skills and educational attainment, 24th in literacy, 17th in educational performance, 54th in education expenditures, but 2nd in ignorance)
The problem of unwilling, smart-alecky, and hostile students appeared when compulsory attendance was extended into secondary school, another problem that continues into the present. The classics, foreign languages and mathematics are curricula which Hofstadter's believes teach students how to think critically and creatively. It was believed that children who lacked aptitude or drive should be released from secondary school. It was thought that to keep them against their or their family's will was detrimental to the classroom environment and the advancement of other students. Discontinuing secondary school in favor of vocational education was seen as more appropriate for such students.
But American democratic ideals demand that all students be treated as completely equal regardless of their aptitude or interest. We think of this as an error, because it led to a zero-sum result of acting out students ruining the education of students desiring an education while they wasted their time in classrooms that taught them nothing. See How Children Fail, America Skips School, Beyond Discipline, and Montessori: A Modern Approach.
Believing that everyone can be educated to the same standard, we have been chasing the dream of "no child left behind" ever since. Hofstadter's view is that academic standards have been so diluted in order to allow the lowest common denominator to achieve success in high school, that the curious and driven student is left neglected. He is, of course, correct. [The belief that everyone can be educated to the same standard is obsolete Second Wave mass-man thinking from a society still having trouble wrapping its head around the Third Wave.] (Source: Gary Schroeder, Amazon reviewer)
Americans are in serious intellectual trouble—in danger of losing our hard-won cultural capital to a virulent mixture of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism and low expectations—see Culture Wars: The Struggle To Control The Family, Art, Education, Law, And Politics In America, The War on Science: Who's Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It, and The New Know-Nothings: The Political Foes of the Scientific Study of Human Nature
"The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself." Ralph Waldo Emerson offered that observation in 1837, but his words echo with painful prescience in today's very different United States. Americans are in serious intellectual trouble—in danger of losing our hard-won cultural capital to a virulent mixture of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism and low expectations. . . . It is almost impossible to talk about the manner in which public ignorance contributes to grave national problems without being labeled an 'elitist,' one of the most powerful pejoratives that can be applied to anyone aspiring to high office." (Which explains why it was constantly applied to Hillary in the 2016 election.) (Source: The Dumbing Of America, Susan Jacoby, Washington Post)
These days, the intellectual/practical conflict shows up in common phrases like 'liberal elites' and 'ivory-tower academics' versus the 'rednecks' and 'bubbas'
The intellectuals were accused of having their heads in the clouds and of being impractical—but they reply that having their heads in the clouds is how they learned so much about climate change
"Almost anyone familiar with U.S. politics will have noticed occasional verbal conflict between what Hofstadter roughly defines as intellectuals—academics as one group, yes, but more broadly anyone who highly values broad-ranging philosophical education and enjoys the play of ideas without necessarily any practical focus—and a perceived class of 'average working people' (or, along a different axis, businessmen). These days, this conflict shows up in common phrases like 'liberal elites' and 'ivory-tower academics,' or on the other side 'rednecks' and a host of synonyms for ignorance or close-mindedness. But this book was written 50 years ago, so Hofstadter doesn't come at this from the current, over-played red and and blue state angle. Instead, this book was written in the aftermath of Joe McCarthy and his wide-ranging witch hunts among academics and progressives, and is deeply influenced by the reform, socialist, and communist movements between the World Wars. One of its remarkable properties is how, despite that, it is very applicable to current debates and frequently compares favorably to contemporary commentary." (Source: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Russ Allbery)
Hofstadter doesn't look at anti-intellectualism from the current, over-played political red and and blue state angle, but from the elites versus rednecks angle
"Hofstadter definitely does not see anti-intellectualism as the corrupting serpent in the American Eden. Instead, as he demonstrates, it has been deeply ingrained in the national culture from the very beginning. In Hofstadter’s view, there have been only two cohorts of intellectuals who have been able to set the overall tone for the country, the Puritan ministers and the Founding Fathers, but both had relatively brief heydays. Of the many forces arrayed against intellectualism, Hofstadter returns most often to evangelical religion—an almost constantly strong influence through all of American history . . . Education, the main institutional countervailing force to anti-intellectualism, has been continually invaded by anti-intellectual ideas, especially the idea that practical training should take precedence over book-learning, and the idea that schools should attend more closely to the emotional well-being of their students than to their instruction. Of course both these ideas are still very much with us today." (Source: The Tea Party is timeless: Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism In American Life reviewed, Nicholas Lemann, Columbia Journalism Review)
One reason for the disparagement of good work ethics and skilled labor is the branding of smart kids as geeks in a culture where social acceptance is sought after with frantic obsession on social networks
Note: There are good reasons that practical training is emphasized by so many: there are no jobs available to most college graduates who had lots of book-learning, but for the young person wise enough to apprentice himself or herself to a plumber or electrician, s/he can look forward to a future of doing well economically, while others stagnate living with parents or join the military out of desperation. Of course, apprenticeship may require some training at a vocational school. But the pay for licensed electricians and plumbers is quite respectable. One reason: supply and demand. For every three skilled workers that are leaving the workforce, only one is entering in their place. If there's one reason for the disparagement of good work ethics and skilled labor it has to be the branding of smart kids as nerds and geeks in a culture where social acceptance seems to be sought after with frantic obsession on social networks. The other-directed person is leading a life of delusion, while the autonomous person—whether nerd or not and whether popular or not—will end up the happiest and most successful. See The Lonely Crowd, The Adjusted American: Normal Neurosis in the Individual and Society, and Is Facebook Making Us Lonely.
The branding of smart kids as nerds and geeks was a dumb cultural move concealing jealousy
The idea that schools should attend more closely to the emotional well-being of their students than to their instruction has its upside and its downside. For the upside, see Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Children, Parental Guidance, And Emotional Intelligence, and Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child.
For the downside, consider how the political correctness obsession in many major universities is wrecking the education of many students and the teaching experience of many professors. (As a result, college degrees have been devalued in general.) The professors get interrupted and disrespected by students who get all bent out of shape by a word or microexpression or microaggression. Radical feminists and racebaiters, as well as self-appointed prejudice and discrimination detectives, have brought learning to a virtual standstill time and time again, and good professors have lost their jobs when the deans have to appease obsessive hypersensitivities of students some of whom see themselves as eternal victims—especially blacks. If parents of these students had possessed more Emotional Intelligence and raised their kids to have it, they'd have the character and maturity to tolerate microaggressions or other forms of political incorrectness without feeling the need to disrupt classes. Why not speak to the professor after class if one has gotten one's feathers ruffled? That is what people with Emotional Intelligence do: communicate and work things out. It's not as though teachers are the enemy or they're purposely trying to cause student discomfort. See The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters and The Revolt of the Elites.
Why not speak to the professor after class if one has gotten one's feathers ruffled? Why disrupt class?
People who have true people skills like empathy, graciousness, and the ability to read a social situation tend to be more successful in their work and relationships. They make much better parents. Kids who have these true people skills are more popular and successful in school, even when their IQs are average. IQ accounts for only 20 percent of successfulness. Character accounts for much of the rest, according to Daniel Goleman. We concur.
As we say in our review of the Tofflers' Creating a New Civilization: The Politics of the Third Wave, " . . . in an era when the anti-intellectual, regressive, extremist forces are trying to take us all back to the Dark Ages—denying science, knowledge, wisdom and the Renaissance and Enlightenment as well—we must all take a stand with respect to knowledge and wisdom: Is the sum total of what we’ve learned as a species and the totality of the technological developments which we have evolved as a species simply temptations from Satan that we should renounce as we regress back to a simpler, more 'holy' time? Or is it human progress of which we should be very proud?"
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life is a book that helps to explain the American anti-intellectual traditions that have, among other things, led to the election of anti-intellectual Donald Trump as president. ("I don't like to read." "Those that disagree with me are fake news reporters.")
If you'd like to understand why those most qualified to address issues are often considered suspect while talking heads with no knowledge but loud voices are embraced, read this book
The book won the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction. But with some of the references updated the book could have been written today, since the political and social climate in this regard hasn't changed much since then. Some could argue that it has actually gotten worse with the creep of technology and the advent of reality TV. If you'd like to understand why those most qualified to address issues are often considered suspect sources of information while talking heads with no knowledge but loud voices are embraced, this book explains the framework for that culture—which is mostly comprised of the uneducated, the fundamentalists, and the ignorant who think with their emotions while their brains are usually idling or engrossed in The Good Book. These are the Trump voters. The divisive impulses that come with know-nothing-ism, prejudice, intolerance, suspicion, and fear-mongering are all on display and analyzed with great understanding and sometimes even compassion. Of course, we all saw know-nothing-ism, prejudice, intolerance, suspicion, and fear-mongering on display in the outrageous behavior of Trump in the 2016 election.
The dumbing down of America is made clearer in the book, and it sheds light on our failing educational system in 2017 as well as everything Trump, and it provides a clear explanation of how we became TV zombies
The "dumbing down" of America is made clearer with regards to the 20th century, and the book sheds light on our failing educational system in 2017 as well as everything Trump. Hofstadter provides a clear explanation of how we became TV zombies. But he's at his best when he analyzes the intellectualism and humanistic spirit of the Founding Fathers and early clergy of the colonies. We could sure use their help today! We recommend this book for anyone who wants to understand how the world's most advanced society can sometimes seem to be crawling with knuckleheads and dunces, some of whom have been and are currently in positions of power.
Hofstadter is at his best when he analyzes the intellectualism and humanistic spirit of the Founding Fathers and early clergy of the colonies
The classic expression of anti-intellectualism in American life: "If you're so smart, how come you're not rich?" Or "those who can, do; those who can't, teach." As Hofstadter writes, Jefferson read Adam Smith; President Eisenhower read western fiction. And of course, Trump reads nothing at all, with the possible exception of Tweets. What does that say about where we're all headed? Hint: it ain't good, folks.
Donald Trump is president, and many, especially at the NY Times, have realized he has—like Joseph McCarthy—the personality common to demagogues. The potential is for him to decide to do what he promised and use his great powers of marketing and persuasion to hit reset on the American machine as he ushers in The American Dream 2.0. and he returns us to our Founders' vision of a democratic republic that is of the people, by the people, and for the people. The ugly temptation will be for him to do what he has usually done in his life: exploit the situation to lord it over people and find the best way to extract maximum profit for himself and "let the people eat cake" (a phrase from the French Revolution connoting disregard for the peasants' welfare). Hopefully, if he follows this tempation he at least will spare us his The Apprentice mantra: "It's not personal. It's just business." Anyway, in the summer of 2017 we are in a position to know that he chose temptation, not potential. We are seeing how the anti-intellectual forces have screwed the American people—bigtime.
Humans are regressing toward pre-Enlightenment thinking that depends upon "authorities" to guide them, rather than reason, logic, and knowledge. So life will be about two things: tyrants and religion. It's almost as though civilization is stuck in reverse and along with that it would seem that human evolution is stuck in reverse. Think about it: brains that cease thinking for themselves and instead let authorities do it for them are unused organs that will degenerate. Thinking takes lots of effort and energy, but replaying tired old religious dogma in one's head takes hardly any energy. Sort of like watching a movie compared to writing a movie or using an app compared to programming an app. Humans are more evolved than apes because they think. Nonthinking humans are like apes without body hair—not much else is different. There are sayings that point out that if something isn't growing it's dying, and a flowing river stays healthy, while a stagnant pool generates diseases and smells bad. A mind replaying tired old religious dogma in place of thinking, and a mind being closed to new experiences and ideas, does not flow, grow, or create. It stagnates, degenerates, and is unproductive.
Once again the rich are shaking down the poor, but 'It's not personal. It's just business.'
To see how anti-intellectual forces have screwed the American people badly, simply check out the reality of the Trump administration and the Trump agenda, and not the spin you get from the Trump agenda mouthpiece Fox News. The Trump administration is the most regressive in U.S. history. It is trying to roll back all human progress and accomplishments of the last century. And yet instead of admitting it, they keep spinning it to look like it will help the little guy, and the rightwing talk show pundits have the nerve to pretend the Trump agenda isn't about just making rich people richer while wrecking the environment and climate and our democracy.
Trump used Make America Great Again as the cover story for the real goal: make american oligarchs even richer again
Soon the poor will be made destitute and the middle class will be made poor and the oligarchs will have to build new money bins to hold all their wealth
Once the poor are made destitute and the middle class made poor and the oligarchs have to build new money bins to hold all their wealth, the less educated whites that are Trump's base will look around blinking and asking "what happened? What happened to making America great again and what happened to Trump having our backs?" At that point, Trump will very likely unleash his infamous The Apprentice mantra: "It's not personal. It's just business." This is what he told all those construction workers he robbed of their wages years ago. In the near future, he'll tell that to his base. He has nothing against his base which he's playing for fools. He just wanted to get more profit for his businesses and their money—and the rest of our citizens' money—was just too ripe for the picking, too easy a target. Presidents are supposed to be the exact opposite of this bait-and-switch con job where he picks their pockets while shaking their hands. The job is defined as having the public's back. Welcome to 21st century "statesmanship."
Presidents are supposed to be the exact opposite of this bait-and-switch con job where he picks their pockets while shaking their hands. The job is defined as having the public's back. Welcome to 21st century "statesmanship."
See Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power to see how anti-intellectual forces have screwed the American people badly.
Trump is part of the problem, not part of the solution—the hero that will ride in on a white horse and save us from all this Concentration of Wealth & Power is not Donald J. Trump. It is us!
Read Requiem for the American Dream and you will realize just how screwed we are
In fact, we're so far beyond screwed we couldn't catch a bus back to screwed
Unfortunately, in 2017, due to the anti-intellectual forces in the USA, we are seeing a lot of backsliding, resurgence of authoritarian fundamentalism, and loss of faith in reason, science, environmentalism and common sense. In the contest between science and religion, science lost hands down. Fear is driving the huddled masses to pile ass deep into megachurches so they can let the "authorities" do their thinking for them. In the U.S. the science books are being ignored by fundamentalists and replaced by belief in nothing but the so-called word of God, to be found solely in the Bible.
Anti-intellectual forces in the USA have led to citizens rejecting common sense and science and instead putting blind faith in Trump and God
The oligarchs—including the big orange Tweeter-in-Chief—would be happy to bury democracy six feet under in order to maximize their wealth
The American Dream used to be "Educate yourself wisely so that you can get a high-paying job one day, and you can end up with a nice slice of the American Pie" but now it's "There are no jobs—if I join the Army, I can get a few bucks for school."
The American Dream used to be 'Educate yourself wisely so that you can get a high-paying job one day, and you can end up with a nice slice of the American Pie' but now it's 'There are no jobs—if I join the Army, I can get a few bucks for school'